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Kern County to look into reports of issues with rental assistance program

rent and utility

A purported delay in the distribution of rental and utility assistance in Kern County has some worried unnecessary evictions will soon take place.

Local community groups dedicated to guiding low-income residents through the application process say at least dozens of households have waited months to hear back from the Housing Authority of the County of Kern. In some cases, they say households have been rejected for simple mistakes like the failure to provide pay stubs, mistakes they say could have been avoided if the Housing Authority had promptly processed the applications and notified the households of the errors in Spanish language letters instead of English.

“We’ve got families who have been denied for simple stuff like contracts or pay stubs, and one of the things that we’re getting is that people are getting the notifications in English when we are submitting the applications in Spanish,” said Hector Hernandez, executive director of Unidad Popular Benito Juarez, a local community organization that focuses on rural and indigenous communities. “Those are little, crucial things that are really important. People are getting the letters, they don’t understand it, and they are just setting it aside. We want the county to pay attention to that stuff, and start getting that money to the community.”

Alerted of potential issues with the county’s main rental assistance program on Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors pledged to take action.

“Perhaps we’re asking for too much, perhaps we’re not being clear, but we are going to move this money or we are going to lose it,” Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Director Lorelei Oviatt said on Tuesday. “Besides the fact that we have people who are in need, we have people who are not being reached.”

The Housing Authority’s Emergency Rent and Utility Assistance Program is meant to provide aid to most individuals who fell behind on rent and housing bills due to the coronavirus pandemic. The county has received $106 million in federal funds to prevent evictions locally, and much of the money remains unspent.

Renters earning less than 80 percent of the area median income — or $55,900 for a family of four — qualify for the program if they incurred a loss due to the pandemic. State law offers significant protection to those in the program. Renters who apply for assistance cannot be legally evicted while their application is being processed and landlords must attempt to apply for aid before they can proceed with an eviction.

Although some may be struggling to access the program, other organizations have experienced success.

“Without a program like this, a lot of people that we’ve helped would have had no other option to get that assistance,” said Valentin Narvaez, director of litigation for Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance. “I think it’s been a blessing for a lot of our clients for sure.”

The Housing Authority did not respond to a request for comment.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop said his office would organize a meeting to look into the complaints about the program and report back to the board.

“There are clearly deficits in the process, even if it’s two people or three people or whatever it is — 20 people — I think it’s worthy of looking into, sitting down with the Housing Authority, and figuring things out,” he said. “Hopefully by the time we have the presentation to your board on this program on where things stand and how things are working, maybe we’ve got some time to do some adjustments so that we’re ahead of the game.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.